I abandon about 15% of the books I start. I try not to go on too much about the books I don’t finish, partially because a DNF still feels like something of a failure on my part (to choose the right book; to stick with what I’ve started) and partially because a book blog would ideally be a place where you just wax lyrical on the books that you love. But every time I have written abandoned books posts they have been absurdly popular, so if you need encouragement to ditch the books that aren’t working out for you right now, do take this as my blessing!
If there are books on my list that you have finished and loved, I’d be glad to hear from you. Equally, if there are some here that you also abandoned, do reassure me that I’m not totally off base. I know I can be inconsistent in how I deal with DNFs: how many pages I give them, how much I write about them, and whether I choose to rate them. If I feel I gave a book enough of a try to know what I would have thought of it overall, I go ahead and rate it. Others will almost certainly think that this is unfair to the author and their hard work. Thoughts?
These are in chronological order of my attempted reads, with the pages or percentages read in parentheses. I’ve omitted any books I’ve already written about on the blog.
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park: This is the second time I’ve been seduced by Park’s amazing-sounding plots – the blurb for this one and The Poets’ Wives are ever so appealing – but ended up unable to engage with them. Here, not one of the characters interested me. Park’s writing is noteworthy, but a bit belabored: there are more words and images there than you really need to make the point (“The solace he tried to take in his intellectual superiority was thinning in spiteful synchronicity with the thinning of his hair”; “in this game, intensity or passion were the illegitimate children of commitment”). (32 pp.)
Census by Jesse Ball: I’d enjoyed Ball’s previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why. This one is very different, though – probably closer to his usual style, based on accounts I’ve read from others. It’s strange, dreamy, and philosophical. With its flat, simple, repetitive language; short sentences and paragraphs; and no speech marks, it is fable-like and oblique, and altogether hard to latch onto. The author opens by saying this is a tribute to his brother, who had Down’s syndrome and died 20 years ago. But in the portion that I read, the character with Down’s syndrome has no apparent presence or personality. People who like dystopian allegories (Saramago and the like?) may well enjoy this, but it wasn’t for me. (10%)
Exodus: A Memoir by Deborah Feldman: A memoir about a woman’s loss of faith – here, that involved leaving her marriage and her Hasidic Jewish community – should be right up my alley, but I had trouble connecting with Feldman’s voice. I didn’t sense honest wrestling, just hipster angst. Should I bother trying her previous memoir, Unorthodox? (20 pp.)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: I could relate to Catherine, an awkward and initially unconfident university student who doesn’t know what she’s good at. Perhaps because I’ve never had close male friends, though, I found it harder to understand her intimate friendship with James. I liked their snappy conversations, but the run-on nature of the narration was slightly off-putting. I would try other work by McKeon, or possibly even give this one another go some years in the future. (140 pp.)
The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore: Initially I enjoyed the first-person voice of Nick, who is on the autism spectrum and relies on careful weekly schedules and lists of rules of how the world works to fit in. However, the second section featuring him is ill-advised and damaging, branding ASD people as violent and horny. All really rather unpleasant, with two of the main characters walking stereotypes and undistinguished writing. (16 pp. plus some further skimming)
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively: This is a gorgeous physical book, but inside it’s writing by numbers: It feels so stiff you can see how Lively filled in an outline. One chapter even ends with “This has been a discussion of the written garden”. Early chapters are on the history of gardens, gardens as metaphors, and gardens in literature (Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth von Arnim, the Sitwells, et al.). I think you’d have to be much more of a gardening enthusiast than I am – I’m a lazy, frustrated amateur at best – to get a lot out of this. (79 pp.)
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: Gowar has an accomplished and knowing narrative voice, and the historical setting is totally convincing. But I didn’t get drawn into the story. A merchant unwittingly acquires a hideous fish-like creature and decides to make as much money from displaying it as he can. Meanwhile, a high-class madam decides she needs a new gentleman protector for one of her best whores. Given the title, I think I know what we can expect. The scenes set in the brothel particularly bored me, and the thought of another 350+ pages appalled me. (70 pp. plus some further skimming)
Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam: I had been looking forward to this historical novel about a missionary marriage in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, I did not find it compelling in the least. Even the twist in the last line of the prologue was not enough to keep me reading. You might try Euphoria by Lily King instead. (6%)
Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley: I really enjoyed Part 1, which is about leaping into life, whatever that means for you. For her it was learning to swim, undertaking outdoor swimming challenges everywhere from her hometown of Brighton to Ithaca, Greece, but also getting married and undergoing IVF. I especially appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. But then it seems like her publishers said, “Meh, too short; add in more stuff!” and so we get the history of swimming, what gear you should buy, FAQs, etc. – boring! (Part 1)
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu: We get a brief introduction to a set of nine- to eleven-year-old campers from the early 1990s on an isolated overnight adventure – they’re pretty hard to keep straight – before diving deep into one’s life for the next 20+ years. The long interlude means Fu doesn’t sustain suspense about whatever bad thing happened when the girls were campers. A disappointment after For Today I Am a Boy. (86 pp.)
The Underneath by Melanie Finn: I requested this on the strength of Finn’s previous novel. Jumping between italicized passages set in Africa and Kay and Michael’s troubled marriage playing out its end in Vermont 10 years later, the narrative feels fragmented. Another strand is about Ben of Comeau Logging and his drug-addicted friend Shevaunne. It’s clear these subplots will meet up at some point, but I didn’t have the patience to hang around. There is a lot of gritty violence towards animals, too. (15 pp. plus some further skimming)
Carry On, Warrior: The real truth about being a woman by Glennon Melton: Melton was an alcoholic and bulimic for nearly 20 years until she found herself pregnant and cleaned up her act, fast. Her approach here is like a cross between Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott: generically Christian encouragement to be your authentic self, do your best work, and choose love. But something about the voice grated, and the short essays felt repetitive. (37 pp.)
Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee: I should know by now that this is just the sort of book I hate: a spare, almost dystopian allegory that’s not rooted in time or place and whose characters are symbols you hardly care about. The Childhood of Jesus was similar. This starts off as Michael K’s quest to get his ailing mother to Prince Albert, but that’s very soon derailed, and with it my interest. (20 pp. plus some further skimming)
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: Alas, I was 0 for 2 on South African Booker Prize winners. Nice landscape descriptions, but despite the discovery of a body there’s no narrative momentum, and one doesn’t warm to Mehring. My favorite passage, with ironically apt adjectives in bold, was “The upland serenity of high altitude, the openness of grassland without indigenous bush or trees … A landscape without theatricals except when it became an arena for summer storms … – a typical Transvaal landscape, that you either find dull and low-keyed or prefer to all others (they said).” (44 pp.)
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal: There’s nothing wrong with the book per se; I just wasn’t compelled to read more. Mona is a lonely 60-year-old who runs a toy shop in a seaside town and makes custom-designed dolls. There are some major losses in her past, at first just hints and then whole stories. In memory Mona can relive the limited moments she had with her loved ones. I could recommend this to fans of Rachel Joyce – the story line is particularly reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Snow Garden – but wonder if de Waal’s previous book would feel more original. (70 pp.)
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe: I had a weird reverse case of déjà vu: this is awfully similar to Mad Men, Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch, and A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird, though of course they would have been based on Jaffe’s novel rather than the other way round. Caroline Bender, fresh out of a broken engagement, arrives for her first day as a typist at a New York City publishing house and has to adjust to catty office politics. I think I’ll enjoy this, but need to find another time when I can give it my full attention. (Ch. 1)
The Day that Went Missing: A Family Tragedy by Richard Beard: In August 1978, when the Beard family was on holiday at the beach in Cornwall, nine-year-old Nicholas was taken by the undertow and drowned. Eleven-year-old Richard was the last person to see him alive. He digs up evidence and stories of who Nicky was in his brief life and what exactly happened on that fateful day. The matter-of-fact, even cavalier, tone detracts from any potential emotional power. The other problem is there’s simply not very much to say about a nine-year-old and his rather average English family. (28 pp. plus some further skimming)
The Lido by Libby Page: The kindest word I could apply to the prose is “undemanding.” I’d hoped the charm of a story about a lonely twentysomething journalist and an octogenarian who band together to rescue their local swimming pool would outweigh the dull writing, but not so. Comparisons with Eleanor Oliphant didn’t fill me with confidence, either. (25 pp.)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: There’s a near-contemporary story line that’s not very compelling; while I enjoyed the 1980s strand about a group of gay friends in Chicago, there are a lot of secondary characters we don’t get to know very well, plus the details of Yale’s art deal slow down the narrative. I really wanted to appreciate the book more because I loved Makkai’s two previous novels so much, but I didn’t feel the impetus to continue. (50 pp. plus some further skimming)
A Long Island Story by Rick Gekoski: I loved Darke, so jumped at the chance to read Gekoski’s second novel. I liked our introduction to mother Addie and father Ben, who works for the Department of Justice but has ambitions as a writer so stays up until all hours typing. They drive out with kids Becca and Jake one summer morning to Long Island to stay with Addie’s parents, Maurice and Perle, at their bungalow. I didn’t sense a lot of promise. It’s interesting to see in the acknowledgements that Gekoski originally tried writing this as a memoir of his 1950s childhood. I think that could have been much more interesting. (35 pp.)
An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas: Thomas writes terrific memoirs-in-essays, so I was intrigued to try her fiction. Nineteen-year-old Virginia got pregnant the first time she slept with Buddy; now she’s married to him and a stay-at-home mother to Madeline. This reads like a cheap knockoff of Anne Tyler, and the shortage of punctuation is maddening. (46 pp.)
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong: I never warmed to the voice of Bình, the Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris, nor was I interested enough in what I read about the “Mesdames” to continue getting to know them. I found the narration overwritten: “This language that I dip into like a dry inkwell has failed me. It has made me take flight with weak wings and watched me plummet into silence.” I couldn’t resist the terrific setup, but the delivery was ever so slightly dull. (31 pp.)
The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.
- As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.
- English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.
- A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.
I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
- Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
- Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
- The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)
The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):
- The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.
- Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.
- Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)
- The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.
Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:
The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.
The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.
The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)
The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)
Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.
On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.
I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?
I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.
I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.
I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?
However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.
My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.
As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!
On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.
Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.